Postcard from Europe: East meets West in Russia for Christmas | Postcards from Europe | DW | 23.12.2010
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Postcards from Europe

Postcard from Europe: East meets West in Russia for Christmas

In Russia, Christmas was only restored in the 1990s after the Soviet Union fell apart. In this week's Postcard from Moscow, Karen Percy says the festive season brings an unusual mix of East meets West.

Moscow's Red Square lit up during the holidays

New Year is the most popular holiday in Russia

Russians take the festive season very seriously. As in many other countries, it's a time to buy presents, put up decorations and prepare feasts. But this is a recent trend. Under communism, religious celebrations were discouraged. Nowadays, Christmas is celebrated in line with the Julian calendar, which means it falls on January 7.

All over Moscow, the Muzak rings out in shopping malls, restaurants and hotels. You can hear classic favorites such as "Jingle Bells," "Silent Night" and "Santa Claus is coming to town."

And the entire city center is illuminated. Kutuzovsky Prospekt, one of the main arterial roads linking the city's west with the center, is festooned with rows and rows of string lights in the red, white and blue of the Russian flag.

karen percy

DW's Karen Percy says the holidays in Moscow are exquisite

Outside the Russian White House, where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin works, is a tall tree covered in blinking colored lights. At Red Square, the old government department store Glavnyi Universalnyi Magazin or GUM is lit with even more lights than usual. Nearby skaters glide by on an ice skating rink set up especially for the occasion.

Rabbits all over

For many decades, decorations were modest. But now there are no limits. Store after store is crowded with some of the most exquisite ornaments I have ever seen. There's crystal and glass, glitter and gold. There are rustic ornaments made of wood or seeds; decorations featuring everything from ballerinas and soldiers to deer and dogs.

Not to mention the rabbits - there are oh so many rabbits this year: Rabbits in hats, rabbit court jesters, rabbit princesses and even ice-skating rabbits.

It's to mark 2011, the lunar year of the rabbit, and reflects the post-Soviet fascination with astrology.

Changing traditions

But despite the carols, decorations and the fact that it looks a lot like Christmas, celebrations here are actually very different.

For example, the Russians don't eat turkey. Instead, the main dish is kutya, a vegetable-based porridge eaten on Christmas Eve. It might be followed by a supper of 12 different dishes to represent the 12 apostles.

Though you might hear about Santa Claus coming to town, the figure himself does not even exist in Russian folklore. A white-bearded gentleman called Grandfather Frost does, though, delivering gifts to the children on New Year's Eve. He's also known as the Russian spirit of winter and traditionally wears a blue suit. But more and more, he's adopted the red attire of his western counterpart.

It's a holdover from the Bolsheviks. When they initiated the revolution in 1917, Christmas celebrations on December 25 were banned, like so many other church activities. They also prohibited the Christmas tree, or yolka, brought to Russia by Peter the Great in the 1600s. So New Year became a more significant holiday, as it is to this day.

For me, one of the more positive aspects of the holidays here is that I am witnessing subtle changes in the gruff Russian demeanor. People are smiling. They are showing small acts of kindness to one another. They are enjoying themselves.

Author: Karen Percy
Editor: Sabina Casagrande

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